March 10th, 2017

Reduce Online Course Anxiety with a Check-in Quiz


laptop with book.

“Online classes are often intimidating for first-time students,” writes David St Clair. “They wrestle with the gnawing fear that their class has no anchor in the physical world and that there will be no one there to address their fears and concerns.” (p. 129) His solution? A simple, online check-in quiz.

Here’s how the activity unfolds. The first assignment in the online course, to be completed on the first day, is this required check-in quiz. In St Clair’s case, it meets the university’s first-day attendance requirement. Students can be dropped from the course if they don’t meet that university requirement. They read the syllabus and take the quiz, which comes to them as an attachment in the course welcome email. The quiz is also posted on the course Blackboard site. Beyond fulfilling the check-in requirement, this quiz is actually a tour of course features. “To find the quiz, learn about the quiz, take the quiz, and to receive their grade on the quiz, students need to navigate through virtually every part of the online class site.” (p. 130) As St Clair points out, you could “tell” students how to navigate the features of the online course, but the more powerful way is having them discover those features for themselves.

Based on his experience, here’s an abbreviated set of features St Clair has found contribute to the success of this activity.

  • Require the quiz – It’s a graded assignment, not something students do for extra credit. At the very beginning of a course, most students don’t think they need extra credit. However, this should be a low-stakes assignment, worth a nominal number of points, but with the risk of a serious penalty if left incomplete.
  • It’s a first assignment – “Online classes must engage students quickly and get them into a class rhythm.” (p. 131) This early engagement is even more critical for students new to online learning.
  • Announce it in the announcements – The quiz should be announced prominently so that it can’t be missed. That also starts to establish course routines: announcements like this one precede every exam and assignment in the course.
  • Make it short and simple – The goal is to take students to all the critical places in the course, not to answer every question they might have about the course. A short quiz more effectively focuses students on the process, not the content, and short quizzes are less intimidating.
  • It’s not a course content quiz – This quiz does not assess background knowledge—that increases anxiety. Rather, it prepares students for learning in the online environment generally and in this course specifically.
  • Syllabus items make good content for a check-in quiz – What’s the grading policy in this course? Where do you find your course grades? Do you submit drafts of your papers? What’s the procedure for doing so? Where are the course readings located?
  • The quiz should be lighthearted or humorous – If the objective is reducing anxiety, a lighthearted approach accomplishes that goal more effectively. Besides helping students relax, humor conveys important messages about the instructor. He or she comes across as an approachable human being.
  • The quiz should showcase normal course patterns and procedures – In a low-pressure way, the quiz shows students how assessment activities occur in the course. “There’s no advantage to introducing students to features that are not part of the course navigation protocol.” (p. 132) The same holds true for grading the quiz. The grading processes, including submitting the quiz and finding out the results, should mirror the processes that will be used throughout the course.

The check-in quiz doesn’t eliminate all the anxiety new (and not-so-new) students experience—it’s not magic, according to St Clair. However, he estimates it reduces the number of anxious emails received from students early in the course by about 80 percent. It’s a strategy that sets up students to effectively manage the features of online learning.

Reference: St Clair, D. (2015). A simple suggestion for reducing first-time online student anxiety. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11 (1), 129-135.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 29.7 (2015): 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Laura Shulman

    Where can we find a copy of this “check-in” quiz? The series of questions used on it.

    • Hi Laura,
      The journal article can be found here: It provides a more detailed explanation of the characteristics and components of these types of check-in quizzes, but there’s not one specific quiz highlighted. Perhaps the reference list has something that might help get you started.

  • Spencer Campbell

    Mary, does he return to the quiz later in the semester or at midterms… a refresher of sorts?

    • Hi Spencer. The article in JOLT is open access, so you are welcome to read it in its entirety.

  • Julio C Castro

    What are your thoughts on having an exit quiz? Although it could be more of an exit survey, do you think you would be able to assess students attitudes towards the course after the experience?

    Thank you.